The Lesson Is, Elections Matter
“Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.” – Amanda Gorman
Elections have consequences – it’s a phrase most of us are familiar with. Currently, it’s a trope on full display in Tennessee where legislators have passed major bills on education and healthcare in the first few weeks of the new year.
Regarding the latter, members of the General Assembly raced to rush through a block grant authorization that would make Tennessee the first state in the union to receive federal Medicaid funds in one lump zoom. The impetus for the quick action wasn’t born out of a desire to serve Tennessee citizens, but rather out of a recognition that on January 20th Joe Biden would become president and likely rescind the grant awarded in the waning days of the Trump presidency. In other words, they were serving the needs of politicians, not citizens.
Yesterday, as a special session designed to pass Governor Lee’s favored initiative successfully wrapped up, politics were once again front and center. All of the proposed legislation was passed into law without testimony from a single one of the state’s educators and over the protestations of one of Tennessee’s most respected superintendents. Despite my deep disappointment over legislation that clearly benefits the friends and family of Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn over the state’s children, I recognize that the outcome was never really in doubt.
Tennessee is a state with a GOP supermajority with an unstated desire not to embarrass the Governor, a fellow Republican. And not passing his favored legislation during a special session called by him, would certainly serve as an embarrassment at a time when the GOP doesn’t any more embarrassments or signs of discord. As a result, some good people were put in a position of promoting bad policy and passing bad laws.
Few legislators have worked harder over the last two years on education than Maury County Representative Scott Cepicky. The Rep has dived deep into education issues, talking with a variety of stakeholders to truly understand the issues facing the state’s school. He’s been receptive to input, even when the information countered his preconceived notions, yet here he was touting legislation that couldn’t possibly be supported by this personal research, let alone that of education experts.
Legislation that proposed, among other things, to retain third-graders who fell short on state tests, inadequately fund a tutoring force, grant extended powers to an education department that can charitably be described as inept, along with passing a raise for teachers that does little but create campaign slogans for politicians. You see the 4% raise, as it was pointed out in Committee, is not a raise for teachers, but rather a one for the BEP funding line that is intended for teachers.
Unfortunately, the BEP funding doesn’t adequately cover all the teachers that districts need to hire to meet mandates. The BEP formula may cover 10 teachers, while the LEA hires 15 to meet the needs of their students. As a result, the allotment meant to cover 10 teachers must be spread out to cover the 15 with local funds required to make up the shortfall. In the case of MNPS, estimates put the proposed 4% raise as being in actuality around 1.5%. An amount that translates, if earning 50K annually, to about $750 annually before taxes. Assuming taxes take at least 15%, that leaves roughly 600 to be divided up over a year of paychecks. Raise your hand if you feel that is an adequate representation of the number of extra hours teachers have contributed this year.
As a result of this proposed increase, large urban districts will be left scrambling to find extra funds in order to even attempt to reward teachers in a manner they’ve earned. But the poison financial pills in these bills don’t end there.
In the past, districts selected the curriculum they would use to best teach their students off of an approved materials list. Legislators recognized the costs of materials and allowed for districts to adopt but not purchase. Contrary to Ms. Schwinn’s testimony, failure to purchase was usually a result of funding and not an effort to circumvent the process. Thanks to the bills that passed yesterday, districts will no longer have that leeway and will be forced to purchase all materials adopted. It’ll be up to Schwinn and posse to decide who can afford what.
Starting immediately, LEAs will be required to submit a plan for approval to the department of education outlining their k-5 early literacy instruction plan using materials off of the state’s approved list, unless granted a waiver. Remember, during the recently completed ELA textbook adoption process the DOE approved over 70 waivers for districts to adopt materials of favored vendors not on the approved for adoption list. Roughly half of the state’s LEAs are now using materials not approved by the Tennessee Textbook Adoption process, and some would argue that the number is much higher due to the actions of the DOE. This is who we’ve granted even more power to. The sad part is, most of Tennessee’s legislators are well versed in the commissioner’s machinations, yet decided to turn a deaf ear out of deference to the Governor.
LEAs better start looking for some more funding for tutors and summer schools as well. Discussions in the finance committee revealed that for summer school, each classroom will be afforded $1400 to cover expenses including busing costs, most of which will be eaten up by teacher salaries. As explained by commissioner Schwinn, most larger districts will benefit from the economics of scale. They’ll have numerous classes in each grade level from which to draw money to cover all costs. Smaller districts won’t be so lucky, and by all accounts, the $400 per class won’t even begin to cover associated costs.
It was also revealed in Finance that districts will be required to cover half the costs of tutoring services that will be required to prevent 3rd-grade retention. In smaller districts that may not represent a significant cost, but for large districts it could be quite significant.
For me, the most troubling revelation of the day was that we fund after school programs, and propose to fund future tutoring programs, summer school, and after school camps, out of a fund that is created by lottery winnings that go unclaimed. A revenue stream that varies greatly from year to year, last year it was $6 million, the year before 2, and before that 3.
Try this exercise, Tell your banker that you plan to refinance your house and that you’ll be making payments with change found in your couch. What do you think, 3…4 seconds before you are laughed out of their office? But no one was laughing in the General Assembly. They felt it was a perfectly stable revenue stream, even when under questioning the current level of after-school funding wasn’t available.
For me, the most valuable thing that happened during Special Session was when Commissioner Schwinn testified before the Senate that 3rd-grade TNReady wasn’t a reading test but rather a measurement of knowledge of Tennessee ELA standards. Think about the significance of that for a minute, the Commissioner regularly makes commentary on the skill level of Tennessee students based on data that is derived from an assessment that she publicly acknowledges doesn’t assess reading. Yesterday, Portland Representative William Lambreth lectured fellow House members to follow the “science” when it comes to COVID, yet he fails to apply the same standard when it comes to education issues.
Allow me to digress here, and be blunt for a minute. During yesterday’s proceeding Lambreth behaved in session in a manner we Tennesseans like to call “showing your ass”, as in, “man he really showed his as”. For those unfamiliar with the term, it loosely translates into behaving in an unflattering or embarrassing manner.
On Wednesday during an exchange with Rep Mitchell, Lamberth behaved in a manner that reflected his status as a senior member of the House’s leadership team. He came off as a gentleman and somebody who did their homework. On Thursday, it was the opposite. In response to Mitchell’s legitimate concerns around the proposed legislation, he resorted to behavior that more closely resembled that of a schoolyard bully.
He was demeaning and belligerent to both Mitchell and those who have legitimate concerns about the dangers of COVID. Despite expressing an unwillingness to debate the effects of the pandemic, he brought forth materials that he had clearly carried with him in hopes that such a debate would arise. Materials that while arguing for the safety of opening schools also carried the caveat that schools were safe as long as community spread wasn’t exceedingly high. Later he blasted anyone who dared question whether the funding designated for the bills would be significant,
“Not only is there not an unfunded mandate, we have funded it well above anything we did last year,” Lamberth said. “Our kids don’t know how to read. If they don’t know how to read well, they can’t do anything else.”
That’s a pretty sweeping generalization. Words that come from the same guys that crafted this message,
In 2012, I ran for and was elected State Representative. I ran because I believe in low taxes, small government, and traditional family values. I know that small businesses are the backbone of our economy. The money you earn through your hard work belongs in YOUR pocket and nowhere else. Government intervention in our daily lives should be as minor as possible. These values are at the core of who I am and I will always hold true to them as I serve you.
Mr. Small Government with limited intrusion is also the architect of proposed legislation that would in effect force open Memphis and Nashville schools before their leaders felt it was safe. Not sure how that aligns with the referenced statement.
Let me offer further clarification, Lamberth lives in Portland Tennessee. A lovely town that I’ve enjoyed visiting, There used to be a bar called the Jungle Room just north of the city that was a “third shift” joint. In other words, it served local factory workers just coming off third shift. I used to enjoy going in there at 7 Am and the joint would be jumping like it was midnight on a Friday. But back to my point.
I’m continually fascinated by these representatives from outside the urban centers that seem to believe they know what’s best for the students of our large cities. Bill Dunn from Knoxville made a whole career out of trying to save Memphis students, why? I wouldn’t presume for a second to understand the unique challenges of Portland’s students, why does Lambreth feel the need to comment on MNPS students and try to force them into bending to his will? If he feels that kids aren’t learning remotely and Portland students are in-person, why does he feel the need to comment on Nashville’s strategy over the officials Nashville residents have elected?
When I look at Sumner County Schools, currently at a 43.9% ELA success rate, they’ve been pretty flat for the last several years. Admittedly, their schools outperform Nashville but they only serve about a third of the number of students as MNPS with nowhere near the diversity. If Lamberth thinks he has the secret sauce, he’s more than welcome to move a few miles down the road, run for election, and if he wins, start offering prescriptions. Until then…he ain’t from around here, is he?
As I mentioned earlier, yesterday’s results depressed me, but upon reflection, I think there is still cause for optimism. During the Special Session, several legislators brought up the importance of implementation, and that’s where I turn for solace. There is a lot in these bills, which is going to require a great deal of work. Putting it mildly, Commissioner Schwinn hasn’t exactly produced a record populated with a history of successful implementation.
The charter school she founded in California barely secured its reauthorization, and to this day it produces mixed results. In Delaware, her attempt at revamping priority schools was met with controversy and she left before any meaningful action was taken. In Texas, again she made a lot of noise, but the only thing that she produced were lawsuits and another fast exit. There is nothing in her resume, or revealed in her extensive testimony during the special session, that indicates results will be any different going forth in Tennessee.
Over the last decade, she has produced a record that she can be judged by. It is one that indicates more political skill than accomplishment. Expecting her to produce something different than in the past is akin to expecting in baseball, a career 220 hitter to start hitting 350. Ain’t going to happen.
During committee reviews, senators brought up legislation, passed back in 2015, that would assign a letter grade to each of the state’s school districts. Despite being passed 6 years ago, it has yet to be implemented. Due to legislation passed this week, it’s implementation will be delayed for at least another year. A fact that serves to reiterate, just because legislation has been passed, does not mean that it will be implemented, or if implemented, done correctly.
By all accounts the department of education is understaffed. Currently, 17 supervisory positions are posted on the department’s website – including that of senior director of early literacy, director of Achievement School District, and Chief Operating Officer. The exodus of employees nice the Commissioners arrival is well documented. None of which could be considered indicators of a great place to work or one capable of attracting high-quality talent. Two things are required to make real change.
Equally important to remember is that Schwinn and the DOE are not the final say. They still have to answer to the Federal Department of Education. Despite Ms. Schwinn’s reassurances to legislators that she could secure favored responses to Tennessee’s requests for waiver, in reality, there is a new Secretary of Education in charge, one who comes from the ranks of the opposite party and likely doesn’t share the same cozy relationship as that enjoyed by Schwinn with Betsy DeVos.
The USDOE may reject the TDOE’s proposal that districts only be required to test 80% of students, deciding instead to hold fast on the nation’s requirement of 95%. They may take a position that states either ask for a complete waiver or meet the requirements as stated. In which case, Tennessee would now be at a disadvantage.
An aside about those requirements, the TDOE is demanding that all TNReady tests be taken in person, despite district benchmarks being administered remotely. If MNPS opens up schools entirely tomorrow, that translates to only 55% of students returning to the buildings. My family, among others, will be remote this entire year. The reasoning being that I’ve already signed them up for one experiment this year, why jump to another before completion of the first?
Ms. Schwinn is demanding that I bring my kids to school for the sole purpose of giving them a test. A test that purportedly holds no meaning. Why would I do that? Why would any other parent that has chosen to remain remote? That 80% threshold is going to be awful difficult to meet, even with the department widening the window to 9.5 weeks. Again, perhaps the commissioner would have been better served by asking for a testing waiver instead of this cobbled-together proposal.
There is still hope that during the upcoming general session, many of the shortcomings of the recently passed bills can be addressed away from the spotlight. The make-up of the education committees and their leadership as designated by Speaker Sexton, give me cause for optimism. There are several very smart people, who value public education, on those committees.
For now, let Governor Lee and his enablers take their victory lap. Passing bad legislation is always the easy part, turning a sow’s ear into a purse is infinitely more difficult. But lest they forget, elections matter and Governor Lee will be facing one in less than 2 years. One that might not be tied to support from the sitting president. One that will likely judge him on actions, and not intentions. An election, that will come after his constituents have been provided with ample opportunity to actually read and evaluate his proposed legislation. One that’s likely to come with challengers from his own party, as well as the opposition.
Hopefully, those opposed to Mr. Lee’s legislation and practices, have been sufficiently reminded that elections matter as well. The next election day will be here before you know it.
UNOPENED CHRISTMAS PRESENTS
Christmas Eve was a busy day for the Department of Education, Not only did they quietly push out a multi-million dollar RFP, but the first report by the recently constructed Tennessee Commission on Education Recovery and Innovation was also released. It’s a fascinating read and one that doesn’t exactly line up with legislation recently passed in Special Session.
The report cites data from NWEA, CREDO, and a recently completed Tennessee Superintendent survey, as the basis for the data considered in the report. By their own admission, the reference survey did not exactly produce a robust response,
In November 2020, all 147 Tennessee superintendents received a voluntary survey from the ERIC. This survey required districts to identify themselves as urban, rural, or suburban but did not require them to disclose the district’s name, nor did the survey require respondents to answer all questions (a full list of questions is listed in the appendix). Eighty-one or 55.1% of the districts responded, of those, 6.17% urban, 17.28% suburban, 76.54% rural.
In case you are doing the math, that 6.7% translates to 5 districts. There is no definition provided by the report as to what constitutes an “urban” district, so it is impossible to say with certainty whether MNPS or SCS participated.
To adequately dive into this report is going to require more than today’s space affords. I’ll try and delve more into it come Monday, but until then, let me draw attention to this observation/recommendation.
- New expectations in educator preparation need to include virtual teaching/learning and renewed focus on early childhood education success.
Now forgive me if I overlooked that item in recently passed legislation. I know that elected officials had no issue in dictating to educators about what should be included in literacy prep, but apparently, this gem slipped their mind. Wonder why?
MNPS COVID-19 tracker has now dipped to 7.9 today. New metrics are being met with both optimism and caution.
The third-grade retention component of recently passed legislation raised concerns with many people, but uniquely so with Representative Ogles from Franklin,
“There is an unintended consequence of holding some of those children back, and that’s the fact they’re going to age out, possibly not being able to play sports their senior year,” Ogles said to colleagues on the House floor. “So some of these seniors now are going to be 19 and 20 years old and they’re going to be going to prom with a 15-year-old child.”
Ah, yeah…let me slowly back away.
Tuesday is an MNPS School Board meeting. Based on the agenda, it looks like it might be a doozy. The Orion contract is back up for approval after being tabled due to board concerns. Four charter schools are up for renewal. There is mention of Dr. Battle’s contract being discussed. And, the board will be considering a resolution calling for the state to suspend teacher evaluations for the 2020/2021 school year. Betting is now open on the over/under for meeting duration and how much of the meeting board member Dr. Gentry sticks around for.
There ya have it.
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